Sunday, October 2, 2016

Don't worry, we'll find it when we move

I have a very clear memory from early childhood — I may have been four years old — of looking for something precious that I'd lost. I think it was some kind of a fancy pencil, with tassels and ribbons, a treasure that was uncommon in those days unlike today where fancy pencils turned up in every loot bag of every birthday party your kid ever went to.

We were still living in Newcastle Creek on New Brunswick's Grand Lake but even at that tender age, I must have heard about and anticipated moving away. It's hard to imagine that the concept of gathering up everything in the house and taking it to another house would be clear to me but I remember searching through the rooms for my fancy pencil and then telling myself, "Don't worry, we'll find it when we move."

It's become a catch-phrase for me over the years and believe it or not, it's quite a comforting thought. You can't find it? Don't worry, we'll find it when we move.

When you're packing up your house to move — yes we are — the first universal truth you run into is that the further you are into the process, the more ruthless you become. Two or three days ago, whatever you're holding in your hand might have had a chance. "Well, I might use that sometime." Today, nope. Throw it in the garbage.

Of course, throwing things away is not as simple as it used to be when you could just toss it. Now you have to take it apart and put some of it in the green bin, some of it in the bag of paper, some of it in recycling — after all that deconstruction, maybe then you have something to throw in the garbage.

People want to know why we're moving. The answer I've perfected is that I need/want a different life rhythm. I've enjoyed the life I've lived here and I still do. It's become routine though and I'm pretty sure I'm ready for some new routines. Once we decided to do it, we said let's not wait. We'll do it as if we're ripping off a band-aid.

That's why we're here on the eve of the moving van's arrival, still emptying shelves and drawers, filling up boxes, going through years of papers and possessions, making some hard choices. Doing it this way though has saved us from a year of sadness, saying, "This is our last summer in the house," or "This is our last Christmas here."

I've lived in this house for 18 years, the longest I've ever lived anywhere. It seems a long time to me although it must seem like nothing for some people — some people I know, in fact, now in their 80s and still living in the house they were born in. They wouldn't have it any other way.

There are lots of things I'll miss. And there are new things to enjoy.

I think it will be fun to stroll up the street to the library, browse through the books, have a cup of coffee — and maybe stop at Pete's on the way home to pick up something tasty for dinner.

Meanwhile, spare a thought for us, surrounded by boxes and packing paper, sorting through old letters and programs and souvenir tickets, kind of regretfully tossing the Christmas cards because we haven't thrown out one Christmas card since we've moved here.

What can I tell you? We're the sentimental types.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The ever-living never-ending blame game

As the US election season goes on, the underlying threat from Donald Trump against Hillary Clinton is that he's going to bring up the subject of Bill Clinton's infidelities. The clear implication is that if your husband cheats on you, it's your fault and you are automatically disqualified from being President.

Of course, when this came up recently, I assumed I had written something about the subject in the past. I went to my archives and found this column which I wrote in January of 1989.

(I should note that Chatelaine is a magazine that has gone through many incarnations in its long life, some of them better, some of them worse. When this was written, it was one of their bad times.)

The current issue of Chatelaine – boy, I hate to admit it when I occasionally pick one up – has an article about the difference between "The Other Woman" and "The Other Man". I'm not going to get into it because it's as ludicrous as most of their articles lately but it did get me to thinking about the Eternal Blaming Syndrome: the notion that everything that happens anywhere can somehow be blamed on some woman. Starting with Eve, of course.

So for example, if the married Mr. X runs off with Ms Y, there are two things you'll definitely hear: 1) "What a hussy that Ms Y is, to get her claws into another woman's husband." And, 2) "It serves Mrs. X right. If she can't hold onto her own husband, I've got no sympathy for her."

Notice who gets off scott-free in this romantic triangle – not too many people pass judgment on that treacherous snake-in-the-grass, Mr. X.

The blaming syndrome is found on a larger scale as well. Thus, even after all this time, we're still inundated in our magazines and newspapers with the propaganda that all of the ills of our present-day society can be directly attributed to the women's movement.

"Feminists," I was informed just recently, "are the ones who want all women to rush out and have a career and they make women who stay home and care for their families feel ashamed of what they do."

The propaganda works very well, doesn't it?

But the way I see it, it's feminist women who recognize that our society is founded, not on the "sanctity" of the family, as we've always been told, but on the unpaid and low-paid labour of half the work force – the half that takes care of the children and the elderly, that volunteers for work in the schools, hospitals, churches and around the communities, that provides housekeeping services for the paid labour force.

It's also feminists who demand that society place a higher value on the work that women traditionally do, whether it's in the home, the office, the restaurants or the factories. And because our society expresses value almost exclusively in monetary terms, feminists lead the fight for homemakers' pensions, fair divorce settlements, dependable child care for the benefit of all mothers and children, and pay equity for women who work outside their homes.

So how can anyone say that feminists don't respect women who fulfil traditional roles? On the absolute contrary, society had devalued all women's work long before the current women's movement came along.

Perhaps the misunderstanding has come about because feminists do see the need for economic independence. Too many women are forced to remain in dead and dying marriages or in violent homes because they have no money and no certain means of getting any. Many more women are deserted by their husbands (remember old Mr. X) and left to fend for themselves and their children and are forced onto social assistance and probably into a deadening cycle of poverty, struggle, job retraining, no child care, and hopelessness.

And in spite of all this, I still hear young women embarking on their marriage careers with stars in their eyes, thinking how wonderful it's going to be to share everything in life – including the husband's pay cheque. Most of them, on their wedding day, would never believe that the day will come when they'll ask for money and he'll demand "what do you want it for?" Or that they'll be trapped in a violent situation with nowhere to go and no money to get there.

So feminists believe this battle has to be fought on two levels. When they suggest marriage contracts, or job training and experience before marriage, and part-time work outside the home during the marriage it isn't because of lack of respect for homemaking and child-rearing. And when feminists fight for fair divorce settlements, for pensions for women, for more vigilance from the courts to see that child support payments are made, it isn't because of any cynicism about all women's right to choose the kind of work they do.

Instead, it's based on the observation that so many women do so much work for so little money and that can only be changed around when women's traditional work is valued and honoured – monetarily as well as all other ways.

It's also done with one eye firmly on the divorce and desertion statistics.

Friday, September 23, 2016

The myth of the 'weaker sex' lives on

I wrote this column in The Daily News in Halifax in 1990. I spent a lot of time, both before and since I wrote this, thinking of women's lives and how they have been misinterpreted and undervalued. The feminist writer, Dale Spender, wrote a book called There's Always Been A Women's Movement This Century.

This brought home to me that with a different slant and a different analysis, the lives of our mothers and grandmothers could be seen in a whole new light.

I would write some of this differently today but this is how I saw it in 1990.

How many times have you told friends, acquaintances, strangers at bus stops that, in your family, girls were encouraged to be strong and independent? How many times have you said, “my mother always told me I could be anything I wanted to be; I've never felt that I didn't have equal access to a good career and a decent life...”?

How many times have you expressed the novel idea that your mother and her sisters and their mother were the strong members of your family, the ones who held things together through thick and thin, who survived adversities without complaint, who displayed the kind of stamina and fortitude that you're now handing down to your daughters?

How many times did you think to yourself that your family was the exception?

I'm of the opinion that families with strong women are the rule rather than the exception and that the myth of “the weaker sex” is another part of the conspiracy that keeps women from fighting back against a system that keeps them down.

I think of so many ways that women's strengths are slighted – either by being taken for granted or scorned through derogatory attitudes towards “women's work.”

A few years ago, involved in my editing work, I came across this intriguing sentence in the minutes of a Women's Institute meeting: “It was decided to use the proceeds from the bake sale to buy our African family a goat.”

Well, no editor worth her paycheque is going to let that pass without finding out a little more. I found that this particular group had been supporting their family for some time in a program not unlike the foster child program except it included whole families. The women worked closely with international relief organizations and they had been told the goat would be easy to care for, wouldn't eat much and would provide milk and cheese for the family which could also be bartered for other special needs.

I checked with a few other groups and found that most women's organizations had, for years, been manoeuvring around governments and bureaucracies just as if they weren't there to provide people in other countries with life-supporting products but also with school supplies, hygienic provisions and things like eyeglasses, even children's toys.

I began to remember things from my own childhood: I remembered going door-to-door with my mother collecting woollen fragments and bits of fabric, packing it all in boxes, sending it away somewhere and seeing it come back, miraculously, as blankets. The blankets were sent “overseas,” along with more boxes of knitted wear, tonnes of it, it seemed, knit by my own auntie.

The women in my past – and in my present – don't expect any thanks for this kind of world's work. It's just as well as it usually goes unacknowledged.

There was another event that brought back some of the same memories. That was the time that a musician by the name of Bob Geldof organized a trans-Atlantic rock and roll concert called Live Aid. It ran on television over many hours and raised a huge amount of money for victims of famine in Africa.

In the months following the concert, Geldof was touted as a possible nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize; he was invited to Washington to give some advice to then American president, Ronald Reagan (that must have been some show); and he made an outspoken tour around the survival camps in Ethiopia, spouting opinions on the crisis at every stop among a multitude of cameras and microphones.

Now I have nothing against Bob Geldof – in fact, I kind of like him. I just think it's necessary to remind ourselves every five years or so that the concept of aid to the Third World was not invented recently and that for years, it's been alive and well in the church halls, parish centres, and rural living rooms of our nation.

Not only that, but why wasn't my auntie ever invited to Washington to give advice to a president, or why wasn't she ever offered a Nobel prize?

Oh well, she and my mother are no longer with us but many women continue their works for others – with or without the world's gratitude. Presidents, prime ministers and rock and roll singers come and go with their grandiose plans but I like to think that somewhere, a Women's Institute branch is saving the money from bake sales, bazaars and church suppers to buy an African family a goat.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Happy anniversary to Each New Day

I missed the first anniversary of Each New Day. My first post here was called Welcome to my day and it was published on September 8, 2015. I don't even have to say, "Wow, time flies!" because everyone knows that already.

In that first post, I explained briefly why I was starting this project.

One day back in the spring, I noticed that I was spending a lot of time taking part in discussions on Facebook. I was commenting here and there, leaving behind observations, some of which were researched, others that were well-thought-out and carefully written.

A few days later, I wanted to take another look at some of the things I'd written and I had no idea where to go to find them, so random was my commenting history. I was suddenly struck by how easily misplaced some of our thoughts are when they're part of just one of thousands of discussions by millions of people on Facebook.

That’s when I decided to start this space so that when I have something I think is worth saying, I’ll say it here and then I’ll always know where to find it!

I still leave comments on Facebook because I like to have conversations with friends but I'm more likely to avoid getting into discussions on serious issues with people I don't know very well. I do feel better about that.

The second reason I started this space was for self-improvement:

The other reason I’ve started Each New Day is that I plan to write here often (I almost said “every day” but that puts a lot of pressure on me) so it’s a way for me to practice self-discipline. I preach self-discipline a lot so it’s good for me to practice what I preach.

This is a good time to start a new project. The second most popular day in the calendar year for fresh starts is the day after Labour Day.

I've done quite well. I haven't written every day but I've come pretty close. I've written quite a lot more than every second day, for example.

I'm a night owl and I often write here late at night. I usually know what I'm going to write about and I sometimes start it earlier in the day but writing late at night has become a habit.

I do notice that my subject matter and style have changed over the year. When I started, I was often content with two or three paragraphs about something I had done or cooked or seen during the day. As time went on though, I feel I reverted to my days as a columnist. My pieces became longer and were often — not always but often — more serious and issue-oriented.

I also went back to memoir-style posts, stories of my childhood and youth which — is this surprising or not? — always attract the greatest number of readers.

The most-read post in the past year is one I wrote on June 8 and shared again a few days ago. It's called A secret lake — and a walk in the woods. It created a lot of Facebook conversation when it was first published and it continues to attract readers.

A runner-up is A little addition to our family — and how it happened, the story of how we adopted William when he was two days old.

William has been working and attending Community College since he graduated from high school but this month, he headed off to university where he's studying political science — an appropriate choice.

We're very proud of William for knowing when the time was right for him.

You readers also liked the story about things lost in the fire at the old house in Black River, Leaving our lives behind while the chaos continues; the recent story, A sweet romance in the summer of '61; and especially, the love story in three parts called Love is the sweetest thing. . ..

I confess, I'm never sure which pieces are going to strike some kind of popularity chord. I think that's a good thing because although I'm always happy to have lots of readers, I don't want to become ratings-driven. I might stop being honest and start doing research into key-words and algorithms. I'll just stick with the old-fashioned rule, "Write what you know" — and I hope you'll stick with me as we enter Year Two of Each New Day.

Thanks so much for being here.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

There was a time in this fair land when the railroad did not run

In the summer, William and a bunch of friends went to Montreal for Osheaga, the big music festival on the old La Ronde/Expo '67 site. They all got there by different modes of transportation — William drove up with a couple of guys in a van, leaving Halifax in the late evening and driving all night. Some of the other guys flew in or drove with other people. Once they got there, they all joined together and lived in a pre-arranged apartment.

They had a grand time at Osheaga. They had been at Evolve in New Brunswick just a couple of weeks before and I think if William had to choose, he might choose Evolve just because Osheaga was so big.

Here's a small part of the Osheaga crowd — a photo I borrowed off the Internet.

But it was great; they heard some good music and got lots of sun and enjoyed themselves a lot.

When it was over, some of the guys had to go home, including the ones that William had driven up with. But as it happened, William and a couple of his closest friends decided they'd like to have a couple more days in Montreal — and who wouldn't? So they settled in and did some sight-seeing and played tourist.

A few days later, he texted me. "Where do we get the train?" William has taken trains in Italy, France, Germany, Belgium and England. In any of those places, his question would have made perfect sense. I would look it up, tell him which station to go to, tell him what time the trains were leaving.

Unfortunately, in our country it's not simple. I told him to go to Central Station under the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, go to the ticket office and see what he could find out. It was Thursday.

When he got back to me, he said, "No train today. The train tomorrow is sold out."

I had checked it out by that time: departures from Montreal Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Three trains a week.

I take this quite personally. This train — the Ocean, formerly the Ocean Limited — played a significant part in my life. I lived in Montreal as a young woman and I travelled back and forth on that train several times a year. I was on a first-name basis with the porters and the sleeping car staff.

This is one of my most-used photos, I'm sure you'll agree.

I use this one too for winter stories:

I not only travelled by train but I took people to the station and waved them off and I met people who were coming to visit.

The train was there and we assumed it would always be there.

People accuse former Prime Minister Stephen Harper of saying, "Give me 20 years and you won't recognize this country." But Stephen Harper didn't say that. It was Brian Mulroney — Prime Minister from 1984-1993 — who said that. I remember him saying it because I very clearly remember thinking, "Why wouldn't we want to recognize our country?"

Mulroney did a lot of damage to this country and one of the things he did was decimate our train service. In October of 1989, the New York Times reported it this way with the headline Trains To Be Cut In Canada.

Even today, all these years later, the details are shocking to me:

TORONTO, Oct. 4 — The Canadian Government said today that it would cut passenger train service by more than 50 percent nationwide, touching off bitter protests in a country that was stitched together by railroads in the 19th century and where trains and the people who ride them are the stuff of national folklore.

The cuts, from 405 trains a week to 191 in the heavily subsidized rail network, had been expected for months because of Government budget cuts. . .

The Government-owned Via Rail Canada Inc. would end up offering little more than skeleton service in wide areas of the Maritime Provinces, along Canada's Atlantic coast, and in the western provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia. Northern Ontario would be hard hit, too, as would parts of Quebec. . .

More than 2,700 of Via Rail's 7,300 employees would lose their jobs as a result of the cuts, but a confidential Via Rail report, copies of which were leaked to Canadian newspapers, said that nearly 60,000 Canadian jobs depended on passenger rail services, nearly 30,000 of them in tourism, and that many of these might be in jeopardy, too. . .

Mulroney said the cuts would be irreversible and he was right. In many places, the tracks were pulled up promptly. In other places, they've grown over with weeds poking up between the ties and the rails rusted and broken. He stressed, over and over, that this was all about money. We couldn't afford our trains.

But getting rid of the trains was not good transport policy. I'm sure the research has been done (I'm not going to look it up right now) that shows the loss of our freight trains and the vast increase in the use of tractor-trailers on the highways has not been a more efficient or a cleaner alternative.

As for passenger service, William's is only the most recent story. There are many stories throughout rural Canada where the loss of rail service went far beyond inconvenience.

William got a flight home to Halifax, by the way. It was cheaper than the train ticket would have been.

And that's a whole other story.

Friday, September 9, 2016

A sweet romance in the summer of '61

When I was telling you about William leaving home to go to university, it made me think about my own experience leaving home.

The summer before I left for Montreal was the last full summer I lived at my parents' house in Chatham, NB. I had decided to go into nursing and I knew that my life was changing course and there would be no turning back. I would be leaving early in September.

My boyfriend that summer was someone I had known for years but had never thought of in a romantic way. My mother had known him since he was a small boy. She was never able to become comfortable with the eccentric young man he had become.

When we started to "go around" together I, unlike my mother, enjoyed the person he had become. It's fair to say that he was not like anyone else in our small town; he had no desire to be and although he was not oblivious to what people thought of him, he didn't care. He was tall and skinny and wore thick glasses. He was very smart and more than capable of carrying on an intelligent and informed conversation but mostly, he didn't see the point.

He had a few friends whose interests were not unlike his. They engaged in intellectual pursuits — they read, played chess, invented things.

Today, they'd be called nerds or geeks. Or both.

We were the same age — 18 — but I had graduated a year before him because I had skipped grade two. We went to his graduation prom together. I wore a new prom dress although I didn't try to outshine the graduating girls. He wore a dark suit with a white shirt and tie and looked quite lovely. We had a sweet and memorable evening together and after that, we were pretty much inseparable as the summer days — and nights — wore on.

He wasn't interested in talking to many people but he talked to me. He also wrote — poetry and songs and stories. He was enigmatic — genuinely so. He wasn't faking. It wasn't always easy to know what he was talking about but it was an interesting challenge to listen to him or to read his latest work.

We spent hours together every day, taking long walks, sitting on the beach, reading, swimming. Often in the early evening, we'd go down and board the ferry that crossed the Miramichi from Chatham to Ferry Road.

(Photo courtesy of Our Miramichi Heritage Facebook group)

We would climb up to the upper deck and settle in next to the bridge. The Captain never seemed to mind because we'd often sit there for a few hours, several trips back and forth, enjoying the weather, each other's company, the legendary River.

Fred (Coonie) Smith, a well-known fellow in Chatham, had opened a burger joint/diner on Water St. at the bottom of King St. We often went there when we got off the ferry and sat at the counter. Fred was always glad to see us and we had some great conversations. He loved to talk and tell stories and he couldn't have found a better audience than we were.

We would walk home slowly after our visit with Fred and we would part company reluctantly.

Many times after we'd said our loving good-nights, I'd be lying in my bed and I'd hear the sweet sounds of his ukulele as he serenaded me under my bedroom window. He would sing his own songs, not always comprehensible, but I always loved them. I think — I hope — my mother was usually asleep when this happened. I would get up very quietly, sneak past their door and out through the kitchen and the back door and I'd meet him under my bedroom window.

One horrible night, I went out to meet him and it was cool and rainy so we came into the house. We went as quiet as two mice into the living room and settled happily on to the couch for a little more time together. At 4:30 in the morning, the phone rang loud and shrill in the quiet middle-of-the-night house. Mum answered; it was his mother who had got up in the night and discovered that he wasn't there. No, he wasn't. He was sound asleep on our couch with his arms innocently around me. I was also asleep, of course.

I guess I could say it hit the fan that night. I resented it — I think I still resent it — because it was such a beautiful and wholly innocent relationship and the parental reaction to it took some of the pure glow away from us. They were so angry they tried to forbid us from seeing each other — as if we were 12 — but we stood our ground and we remained two-against-the-cruel-world even though our time was running out.

The day I was leaving for Montreal, he wanted to come to the station and I insisted that he should against my mother's wishes. We sat sadly in the back seat of the car, holding hands, at a loss for words.

When we reached the station and were on the platform, he said he had to run an errand and he'd be right back. Now the Newcastle train station is on a street that runs across the top of the town — it's not really near to any shops. But those long legs were put to good use and he was back shortly before I was to board. He had picked up a magazine for me, said he knew I liked to have plenty to read when I travelled.

After I kissed my parents, he held me and whispered sweet nothings in my ear and told me how much he was going to miss me. I couldn't speak and I simply turned and boarded the train.

When we were about half-way to Bathurst, I pulled out the magazine he'd bought and began to leaf through it. I came across a small scrap of paper that said "I love you." As I flipped through the pages, I found more and more little notes. All of them said, "I love you." I was so sad.

Of course we kept in touch — he even came to Montreal and visited me in my residence — but our lives were very different. He went to university, I was living with a lot of pressure and I think, in the end, we just grew apart. His own life took some bizarre turns, at one point bordering on the tragic. Our paths crossed years later and he was still enigmatic and was living outside the strict rules of society but I think it was working for him.

Wherever he is, I hope if he ever thinks of the summer of 1961, it makes him smile and just for a few minutes, remember what it felt like to ride that ferry back and forth across the Miramichi on a soft summer evening.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

A delicate blend of an ending and a beginning

Cape Breton is as beautiful as ever. The drive up Route 4 from the Causeway along the beautiful Bras d'Or Lake to Sydney is still one of the champions in the Nova Scotia scenery department.

Just a few weeks ago, I shared the story of William being born in Cape Breton and how we met him there and brought him to Halifax when he was not yet two days old. This week, he returned to Cape Breton as he and his girlfriend, Keisha, begin university life at CBU. We all drove up to celebrate new beginnings and we're all looking forward to the unfolding of this new chapter.

(They're wearing their new residence — Harriss Hall — t-shirts.)

They have both been working during the time between high school and the present and William's also been taking courses at Nova Scotia Community College (NSCC). He often groaned about those courses so you can imagine that he — and we — were gratified to find that the credits he gained at NSCC will migrate with him to CBU. It's a nice little head-start that he wasn't expecting.

Harriss is the newest of the residences at CBU. William and Keisha have nice rooms separated by a small foyer and they share a bathroom — nicer than using the communal bathrooms and showers. They have a cafeteria with excellent food — open all day — just an elevator ride away.

My friends wonder if I'm sad at the change in our lives. "Sad" is not the right word. It's an adjustment for our family — one that most families go through — and it feels natural. It prompts me to look back to when I left home and how differently I and my mother probably felt about it. I felt a little apprehensive about my future but mainly, I felt free as a bird and excited about my new status as an independent person. I would like to think that she saw it as an opportunity to expand her own life and interests — and maybe she did. She was busy and enjoyed her work — she was a teacher — and she was active in her church and her community.

It's probably a good sign if both parent and child accept this separation as a natural step in their ongoing relationship. It's a delicate blend of an ending and a beginning, a blurred line that results in a mix of emotions, all of them an ordinary and accepted part of life.

We're grateful for the experience.